Children in prison exist in unabridged darkness. Their mothers, mostly innocent women used by family and friends to evade conviction, will never see a trial and are condemned by society. Their children, some born into prison, endure the same misfortune. Up until 1990 in Nepal, when Indira Ranamagar established Prisoners Assistance Nepal’s (PANepal), children of women in prison lived behind bars with their mothers, some of who have no capacity to give care and love to their offspring.
(Left) Children at PANepal’s Kathmandu shelter study for their exams in candlelight during Nepal’s 16-hour winter load shedding. With four shelters throughout Nepal, resources are spread thin and since the shelter in Kathmandu gets electricity during some hours of the day, shelters located in more rural areas are given priority when buying a generator.
Text and photos by Debby Ng
Indira was born in Eastern Nepal to a landless poor family, and like most women in Nepal, she was deprived of the right to an education. Her brothers were given the opportunity to study whereas she was given the responsibility of strenuous housework. Eager and determined, with sticks and the earth outside her home, Indira taught herself to read and count.
Her thirst for scaling became greatly inspired by the renowned Nepalese writer and human rights activist Parijaat. In the early 1990s, Indira joined his organisation that worked in Nepal's prisons. At that time most of organisations were focused on the plight of the political prisoners, but Indira was drawn towards the poor and vulnerable prison inmates. She believed that these poor and "anonymous" prisoners along with their family actually become the "victims" of Nepal's penal system. In 2000 Indira set up an organisation to work with prisoners and their family, PANepal.
In Nepal, a family can be left in dire straits if the family breadwinner is sent to prison. Denied of the chance to earn money while in prison, prisoners can’t provide for their family outside. The typical Nepalese prisoner has little education and no professional training. With no regular income, there is no way to ensure that their children receive the proper care while they are incarcerated. Thus a prison sentence means punishment not only for the persons convicted but also for their families, in particular the children.
(Left) Young preschoolers at PANepal’s Kathmandu shelter improvise a game out of sitting floor mats.
Nepal’s prisons are poorly run nightmares, characterised by neglect and indifference. This treatment causes undue suffering above and beyond what may be intended by imprisonment. As a result, after serving their sentences, prisoners (innocent or otherwise) emerge not rehabilitated and equipped to re-enter society, but spiritually destroyed and socially insecure. As such, they most often revert back to a life of crime. Indira is working to change the penal system so that it treats the prisoner as a person and considers their future lives, including preparation for employment and caring for their families.
(Left) Children attending schools within Nepal’s capital city return to PANepal’s Kathmandu shelter. Some 40 youths, aged three to 18, call this shelter home.
A major problem in Nepal’s prisons is that innocent children are often thrown into jail with their parents and forced to grow up in violent, brutal conditions, deprived of education and stigmatised by their jail time. When parents are incarcerated, the only way many kids can remain with a caring guardian is to go to prison with them.
(Left) A child runs along a staircase in PANepal’s Kathmandu shelter. Having just changed out of his uniform after returning from school, he hurries to complete his homework before the sun sets and the shelter is cast into darkness.
Indira has introduced reform, rehabilitation and welfare programmes into Nepal’s troubled prisons. Indira’s approach is to address the issue in a holistic way, working not only with prisoners but also with their children, families and home communities. True reintegration can only be achieved if prisoners increase their education, training, and sense of self during incarceration. This includes not losing their identity as a parent.
(Left) A “house mother” looks on as the children under her care gather in a carpeted room to complete their homework. In winter, the carpet provides a comfortable ground for the children to work and play on.
Indira has won the confidence and full cooperation of both prison authorities and prisoners. Instead of being confrontational, she presents herself as a concerned ally, trying to find a system that’s best for everyone, both inmates and guards. Her proposed system benefits not only prisoners, but also guards and administrators by creating a less harsh, less stressful work environment. She shows that she understands prison authorities with their limitations and constraints, to gain their trust.
(Left) Pre-schoolers mimic the behaviour of their older brothers and sisters, by gathering together in a corner of a room, with picture books and pretending to do home work. Though the children are unrelated, come from different backgrounds, and from various areas across Nepal, they bond well and assume responsibilities toward each other as mentors, sisters, and brothers. Despite the misfortune that has brought these children together, Indira has empowered them with the capacity to love, and her shelters allow plenty of space for it.
For the children of prisoners, who suffer unnecessarily for their parent’s crimes, Indira is reconnecting the children with the outside community, with relatives and foster parents, and pioneering novel concepts like half-way homes for children just coming out of a prison environment. In the last three years, she has “rescued” over 70 children from prison. Indira’s organisation facilitates removing children from prison and housing them in her organisation’s children home, where they are educated and raised in a loving environment. The children still regularly visit their parents in jail to preserve the family bond. These visits give prisoners something positive to look forward to, motivating them to more quickly reform and live law-abiding lives.
(Left) The older children gather in the colder room to complete their homework. Without the comfort of a warm carpet, the teenagers kneel and squeeze onto their little mats amidst the rush to complete their assignments while there is ambient light.
Indira also works with local communities to ensure that reintegration and rehabilitation of the newly released prisoners is complete. This usually involves setting up of a local support network of families and neighbors. Indira leads discussions that help locals understand the plight of ex-prisoners, as well as stress ex-prisoners’ right to live as contributing members of the community. This helps to remove the stigma attached to imprisonment.
(Left) PANepal’s Sankhu shelter is built within a rural hillside community. Here, youth are taught skills that are useful in a rural community, which helps develop their self-esteem and enables them to integrate with one another and the greater community. Children in this shelter were significantly involved in the construction and maintenance of the estate. This process teaches them responsibility and nurtures a sense of belonging.
Outside the prison world, PANepal is providing welfare and educational services to children as well as support programmes for women. Girls Education Nepal (GEN) is an organisation that provides shelter and educational opportunities for children below the age of 12. PA Nepal operates a special programme under GEN in which Indira has the overall responsibility of a team of educators and administrators. Indira identifies the most needy cases, submits her recommendation and together with GEN decides which girls are to be chosen for the programme. Indira is also responsible for maintaining relationships with the families and communities that the children are from, to ensure that there are no problems and the girls are attend school regularly. Indira's role in the project has crucial and her knowledge and experience invaluable for the success of GEN.
(Left) In rural areas where educational facilities do not exist, such as in the village of Sankhu, PANepal has built classrooms and developed social areas for the children and families from the surrounding area.
Indira and her team are working with the local community to try to reduce the common prejudice that Nepalese people feel against ex-cons that hinders sincerely reformed ex-prisoners from finding employment. This ensures that released prisoners are accepted back into their families and can make a new beginning as contributing members of the society. This is where her work, unlike many others, takes into account the children of the prisoners – often the unintended victims of their parents’ crimes.
(Left) Mature youths expand upon their responsibilities and return to PANepal’s school in Sankhu as teachers for children with whom they share similar childhood stories.
In Nepal, little thought is given to the treatment of prisoners – or to how that treatment ultimately ends up hurting society. Apart from helping released prisoners re-integrate into mainstream society and working to improve the conditions inside prisons, PANepal creates an opportunity for prisoners and their wards to be educated, so that when they are released they will have some practical skills to fall back on rather than simply returning to crime. They have also helped to establish income-generating activities for prisoners, such as bee-keeping at Nakhu Jail, knitting and sowing activities, and literacy classes at the central women's prison in Sundhara, Kathmandu.
“Parents commit crimes, but it does not mean that the children should also be punished,” Indira says.
(Left) The rural and isolated village shelter at Tansen, Palpa, is not suitable for girls because of its remoteness. It is the only shelter that has only boys and a completely self sufficient farm that includes several livestock, so the only product the shelter needs to import is rice. Like the youths in Sankhu, fundamental behaviour is taught by having the boys involved in sowing and harvesting from the farm. As most of the boys come from rural, farming backgrounds, they this also allows them to develop the skills necessary for work back home."